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Trip to the Beaches (Pt. 2) 10/03/2014 at 10:27 PM EDT

By the time we were done with the chocolate, the rain had let up a little bit so it was a good time to keep moving on to the beach. So we got back on the perfectly paved road and drove through the jungle for another 20 minutes or so until we came to an intersection. So we turned at the intersection and drove about a quarter mile until we came to a roadblock consisting of two military vehicles and some soldiers who asked to see all of our UNGE ID's. If we didn't have those, we wouldn't have been admitted to the beach. I guess you need some valid explanation as to why you're going to the beach, and somehow a college ID outranks a passport for vacation activities.
Side note: Something we'd also learned about the military here, other than the fact that they also take the role of police, was that they will stop people at random throughout the city and ask for papers. If someone can't produce papers (which is common due to the influx of illegal unskilled labor jobs since the oil boom) they are expected to pay a bribe. If they can't pay a bribe, they'll get sent to jail, and presumably deported, but it's very unclear if that last part actually ever happens. Also, they don't feed you in jail, so unless you've got a friend or family member bringing you food you're in pretty deep trouble.
Anyway, we all had our papers so we were good. We went on through to an area with a few shack-like houses, people scattered around at grills selling food, a few huts with bars in them, and gazebos along the beach with tables and chairs in them. Since chocolate didn't fill all of us up, David took me and two students over to one of the grilling vendors to get chicken kabobs and giant African land snail kabobs. Yup, giant African land snails. Their shells are probably 6 or 7 inches long and the meat (which was obviously the part on the kabob) is about 2 inches long. So we ate these chewy smoky things on sticks, which I have to admit I wasn't the biggest fan of. And the chicken, well it probably wasn't chicken. The woman who sold it to us said it was, but it definitely was not chicken. Our best guess was pork or lamb, but we didn't want to make too many guesses, especially since stray dogs can be seen wandering around everywhere there are people--including the beach.
All the while, it was raining at the beach. Not torrentially, just a constant drizzle that picked up every now and then. But since we were in the tropics, it didn't matter. It was warm enough to go in the water too, because the water temperature was so much warmer than what I'm used to in New Jersey. The water wasn't clear like it is in Florida, so in that respect it didn't quite match the postcard picture of a tropical beach. Also, there was just an incredible amount of trash along the tide-line where the eating areas were. That was new: I've never been to a beach that didn't have anyone paid to remove the trash, and it was hard to tell if there is a culture of littering or if it's just an accumulation from a few negligent individuals. But all we had to do to escape it was go a little farther down the beach, which steadily got more and more beautiful. But before we did that, we played a long game of soccer in the rain with some of the locals. Considering we had only one student who's actually played soccer competitively, we held up pretty well. We used sticks as goalposts and the ocean was essentially the only boundary. The tide sometimes ruined passes, but we didn't really mind.
Once we were all significantly exhausted from the soccer game, we moved on down the beach to explore the coastline. The trees coming from the edge of the forest created a beautiful corridor over the sand. When we got maybe a quarter mile from the main area, we went in the water. The waves were powerful but not overwhelming, and we had an incredible view of the caldera of Bioko's volcano while the clouds were clearing out. All in all, it was a fantastic beach trip.

Trip to the Beaches (Pt. 1: Chocolate) 10/02/2014 at 5:04 PM EDT

On Sunday, we took a trip to Arena Blanca, or the White Beaches, which is southeast relative to Malabo. Or at least that was our initial plan, before we woke up to torrential downpour. It is, after all, a rainforest so that really shouldn't have been much of a surprise. And forget about planning for weather for these kinds of things; weather service here is unreliable at best.
   But weather here can be patchy, so we figured maybe it wasn't raining at the beach, which is about a 40 minute drive away. So off we went. It was still raining when we were about 20 minutes away, so we decided to stop at the only place on the island that makes chocolate because it was conveniently on the way. Just a little background on that topic: the main economic driver on this island used to be cacao. Where there is now quite a bit of development, there used to be thousands of acres of cacao plantations. Over the years, cacao plantations dwindled and now there is very little cacao produced on the island and only one single place that actually makes chocolate--a tiny "restaurant" that looks somewhat similar to a horse stable up in the mountains of the eastern part of the island, surrounded by nothing but rainforest. The restaurant is run by a husband and wife and their daughter, and they serve and sell a variety of products made from cacao and coconuts.
Naturally, the first thing on all our minds was sampling the chocolate. However, we didn't get that chance, which turned out to be a good thing. First, we were given cocao beans to sample. They were incredibly bitter and had a very strong chocolatey flavor. Then, we were given a platter with some chocolate butter to spread on bread and some chocolate. The chocolate was very soft and super bitter, but surprisingly delicious. This was served alongside these rock-hard (seriously, they were painful to bite) cookies made from coconuts that were deliciously sweet. After we'd finished sampling all these delicacies, we were given hot water to mix with chocolate powder, condensed milk, and homemade honey, which tasted more like molasses than honey but was delicious nonetheless. Greta, one of the students living with us, mixed what was apparently the perfect mixture of these ingredients.
Everything was absolutely delicious. It was the perfect combination of a friendly family, delicious food, and pouring rain.

Arrival in Bioko (Pt 2: Scavenger Hunt 10/02/2014 at 7:58 AM EDT

On Sunday we were invited over to the Hilton Hotel on the island by a big time oil company executive whose company funds the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program. That was super nice and we got lots of free food and drinks at a pool, but it's not really why I came to Africa so I'm gonna just glaze right over that. On Monday we got to really see the city. We met up with some students from the university at which we're studying, the National University of Equatorial Guinea (Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial, or UNGE for short) and split up into small groups to go on a scavenger hunt for landmarks in the city. We walked to most of the destinations, which allowed us to get an idea of what the lifestyle is like here. The first thing I noticed was the fact that there aren't really traffic laws here. Or at least none that anyone follows. One way streets? Sure there are signs but who cares? Go whichever way you want. Stop signs? Ignore them, just be sure to stop for people trying to cross (which people are actually very very good at here). The streets and sidewalks aren't as clean as they are in America, but there certainly isn't trash everywhere. The first two destinations we visited were the Spanish and French Cultural Centers, which each have libraries, movie theaters, music rooms, and regularly host cultural events. Then we visited the presidential palace, which was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, I couldn't take any pictures of it because the government here forbids taking pictures of any federal buildings or people. The government is something of a dictatorship, but I won't describe that now. Lastly, we went to the central market (or Mercato Central), which was incredible. The best comparison I can come up with is a scene from Indiana Jones. It was an open market, with stands organized kind of how they are in farmer's markets in the US. But these stands were incredibly densely packed. There was a section with housewares, one with electronics, one with clothing, and one with TONS of fresh fruits and vegetables, many of which I've never seen or heard of. I'm sure there are plenty more types of shops that I didn't see. I didn't have a chance to take a picture inside the market because it was so busy, but I got a great one of the street next to it which I've attached. It's fascinating to see a place like this because people often do ALL of their shopping there; rather than just picking up a few fresh ingredients and hanging out. And all of the vendors there make a living off of it. It's a strange thing to see people selling clothing (that may or may not be used) with American logos in a developing city on a rainforest island halfway across the globe. But while our culture has permeated theirs to some degree, most things are still very different. This is a whole new world and it's pretty incredible to be so surrounded by a culture so different. I've never blogged before, so I'm still getting the hang of how to end this type of thing.

Arrival In Bioko (Pt 1) 10/01/2014 at 5:14 PM EDT

I've been in Malabo, Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea for almost a week now. I've got to do two of these a week, but our internet has been pretty unreliable. Our router is a tiny little box that somehow magically connects to the internet via satellite – sometimes. It was out for the first few days, but hey, this is Africa and if you expect anything better than that, you've got to be kidding yourself.
    So anyway, I guess I'll start from the beginning. After a 20-some hour trip, I arrived with a group of 9 other students in the Malabo Airport and piled an absolute ton of luggage into a van – we each had 2 check-in bags of about 50 pounds and two carry-ons. (A note: the picture I've attached was taken while landing in Abuja, Nigeria, the last stop before Malabo, where it was too dark to get any good arrival photos) From the instant we got off of the plane, it was pretty abundantly clear that this is an entirely different world. The baggage claim was swarming with people offering to carry our bags on carts for us in exchange for pay, which we were told would be an egregious amount if we'd accepted. And while security was checking my bags, our resident director, David (a less than average height guy in his mid-20s whom we've now collectively named papa) had to angrily stave off a man who'd insisted that I asked him for help. He did this entirely in Spanish, and I guess I haven't mentioned – Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, and I don't speak a lick of Spanish. So the whole communication thing has been pretty tough, but I'm getting there.
   We got to see some of the place on the drive from the airport to our house, but since it was dark, we didn't really see anything all that well. When we arrived to the house and moved our stuff into our rooms, my two roommates and I learned we wouldn't have lights in our room and some of the outlets have way too much current or voltage running through them. But David assured us this would be fixed in a day or two. That day or two has lasted all week, though, and still hasn't been fixed because everything here runs on "island time," which basically means people get to things when they get to them and very rarely is that quickly. Our room does, however, have a bathroom in it, which is convenient. It's a luxury here to have running water, so we can't complain about the cold showers. And to be honest, when you're in the tropics a cold shower isn't all that bad. It's in the 80s or 90s every day with humidity at usually at least 90%.